Friday, January 27, 2006

Working progress...Union building re-development

AS many people will be aware, the Students’ Union building is undergoing major re-development. Students’ Union President, Ben Preston, say’s that at the end of it all we will end up with practically “a brand new Students’ Union building”.

The construction work will be carried out in a phased process and is scheduled for completion for the start of the next academic year, September 2006.

Considering this time scale there will be considerable disruption to particular services in the interim period. During refurbishment to the front foyer, in addition to restricted access to the building, via Elmwood Avenue, the shop has had to be temporarily relocated to the main corridor, along with the book shop which is now situated at the main Elmwood entrance. The situation is said to improve as time goes on and certain areas will become more accessible as the renovations to particular zones are completed.

In an interview with The Gown, Ben said that the new building would be “equipped with all the facilities needed” to enable the Students’ Union to “contribute a vital ingredient in the student experience at Queens”. These new facilities will include improved clubs and society services along with new meeting rooms, a coffee-house, additional space to “relax and chill” and also new commercial units. Although the new venture will facilitate additional enterprise and services, its main theme is to also modernise and develop existing services such as the Union shop. One student described the newly installed Elmwood entrance as “really modern” and “very colourful”.

When asked whether this represented a significant investment in the Students’ Union by the University Ben replied with “yes and no” and said that the “major portion of the redevelopment is paid for by the student’ through use of the union facilities.”

The refurbishment will therefore be paid back inadvertently by the student through the use of Union commercial services. This will enable students to play their part in investing in the facilities to cater for the next generation of undergraduates.

There are sections from within the University that see this re-development as part of the University restructuring debate. When Ben was asked whether the redevelopment of the union represented an attempt by the university to strengthen or weaken the union’s singular identity, he explained that it was “a difficult question to answer given the university has offered no clear statement regarding our (The Students’ Union) position within the commercial services directorate”. He concluded that “recent discussions are promising however.”

- What are your thoughts on the Union building re-development? What do you think of the building refurbushment so far? -

Fury over election of New Students’ Union Mature Officer

THE resignation of Stuart Christy, the Union’s Mature Student Officer, prompted the Students’ Union executive to call a by-election to fill the non-sabbatical post.

Nominations opened in November and only saw one candidate put their name forward. The election was due to be held on December 13th 2005, but at a meeting on that day Union President, Ben Preston proposed to Student Council, that “rather than stage a costly by-election” Council should approve the co-option of the sole candidate, David Smyth, to the post for the remainder of the academic year.

Some Councillors reacted in anger to the suggestion, Christopher Gaskin said, “neither the Executive Committee nor the Students’ Union Council had the power to co-opt.” Talking exclusively to ‘The Gown’ , Mr Gaskin said that the decision “was totally unconstitutional.” He continued, “The election should have been held and council should not have been asked to "approve" the returning officers decision as it is a conflict of interest.” Mr Gaskin said that he intended to raise the issue at the next Election Regulation Committee meeting and at the next Student Council, due to meet at the end of January.

In reply to Mr Gaskin’s comments, Mr Preston indicated that as Mature Students’ Officer “the candidate would have no voting rights at meetings of the Students’ Union Executive Committee.” This is in line with the Constitution.

Deputy President Peter Quinn stated in support of the proposal that co-option had happened before and argued that it was constitutional. Student Community Action Officer, Ed Hanna said “a failure to fill the position of Mature Students’ Officer until February 2006, at the latest would be detrimental to the good work of the Students’ Union.” He further argued that “the nomination process had offered all interested students the opportunity to indicate their willingness to stand for this important post.”

Despite the opposition, Council approved the proposal and David Smyth took up the position as Mature Student Officer. Mr Smyth said in an interview with ‘The Gown’ that: “My election/selection/co-option to the position at QUB is nothing new so far as I can see. If Mature Students Officer is such a sought after title how come nobody else showed any interest in filling it?”

Brian Heading, the Returning officer said in a statement that as there was only one nomination “under rule 8.32 of the constitution” he decided that “we do not run an election.” He had ruled the candidate duly elected on the advice of Council and added that in making his decision he “consulted with the Union President and the Union General Manager who is the ultimate budget holder for the Students’ Union.” He further stated that to run an election it would “have actually cost more money”, particularly given the situation, the one nominee would have been elected anyway and in the history of elections within the Union Re-open Nominations, also known as RON has never won. It was claimed as “a victory for common sense.”

EXCLUSIVE: New Tory Leader speaks to ‘The Gown’

Soon after his election as leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron made a brief visit to Northern Ireland. On December 15th he attended Lagan College, the provinces first integrated school.

The assembled press focused their questioning on Mr Cameron’s policy toward Northern Ireland. Mr Cameron evaded giving any detailed response, merely suggested that he supported the peace process and the Prime Minister’s efforts to find political accommodation.

Putting Northern Ireland at the top of his nationwide tour schedule, came as a surprise to many. In an interview with The Gown Mr Cameron revealed the reason for his visit, he said “the purpose of my visit today is because I am now leader of the opposition, I think it’s important to get to every part of the United Kingdom early on and that’s the reason for coming to Northern Ireland.” When asked by The Gown if his visit was intended to boost support for the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland he said, “clearly the Conservative Party has a presence in Northern Ireland and where Conservatives in Northern Ireland want to stand and they feel it advances the cause of the Conservative Party they then obviously have my support.”

The Conservative leader went on to make a number of classroom visits, talking to pupils who seemed pleased to see him. A student asked him a question on the issue of tuition fee’s, a worry facing many new students across Northern Ireland and in other parts of the U.K. Mr Cameron said that he felt that students would have to accept to pay more for their education. This policy has become clearer in recent weeks with the announcement by the Party that they will reverse their opposition to the Governments plans.

Community Wardens: a “new and positive chapter”

THE launch of a community wardens scheme marks a “new and positive chapter” in the development of the Holyland area according to a statement on behalf of Belfast City Council.

The Council in partnership with the Police, the two Universities and local colleges launched an initiative to address ongoing anti-social behaviour in the area.

A team of 8 wardens will work in the area with 3 during the day and 5 at night. They are employed by Belfast City Council as part of a one year pilot. If successful the scheme will be extended for a further 3 years. The main aims are to: reduce anti-social behaviour; reduce the fear of crime; improve the quality of life; improve the local environment; increase engagement within the community, and improve community safety.

Officially launching the scheme at the City Church, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Wallace Browne, said “the various agencies had been working together to address the joint problems of anti-social behaviour and the decline in community infrastructure and the local environment in the Holyland.” He expressed his confidence that the introduction of a “visible and dedicated service would have a real and tangible impact upon the issues confronting this area.”

The Mayor added that this marked one of many initiatives to include the Get Home Safe project and the Radiolink scheme, both of which would work alongside the warden scheme. This latest scheme in conjunction with others is an effort on behalf of the various organisations to tackle the problems that have faced the area in recent years, highlighted in particular by events that occurred last year as reported by The Gown. This unrest created bad PR for the area and for students, particularly highlighted by a BBC NI Spotlight programme.

He said that he firmly believed that the warden’s scheme would “contribute to [the] ongoing work to tackle anti-social behaviour and environmental decline.” He highlighted that it was “crucial that the wardens are regarded as a service for all in the area” and were there to “provide advice and reassurance to all those affected by these problems”. He urged everyone in the area to work together with the wardens and their partners to “bring about positive changes and harness the true potential” of the area.

It is understood that the team will be able to issue fines for offences such as littering. However, one could question whether the scheme is more of an admission that existing community police officers are not fulfilling their responsibilities.

Ben Preston, Students’ Union President said that “anything that can help student safety in the Holylands and help combat the problem of litter in the area should be welcomed.”

The re-structuring debate roll’s on…

SU PRESIDENT Ben Preston claimed that a recent move by the University, after negotiations had proved to be “a victory for the Students’ Union”. This came as a decision was made not to split the Union between two directorates, as initially planned. The Union was to be split between two new directorates in line with the Queen’s Vision and University Re-structuring. Since then however the Union Executive has been involved in negotiations with the University to see this plan changed. Ben said the Executive had wished to see the Union “remain as a single entity” and had won “that round of negotiations.” However it has been policy of the Executive not to see the Union under the Directorate of Commercial Services, which many students oppose. Ben did however reiterate that he regarded this move as a victory in terms that the Union was “not to be split between two directorates” and that he had to get the best deal out of the situation.

At the December meeting of Council Socialist Society members voiced their opposition to the plans in a motion presented to Councillors. The motion called for the organisation of a rally in protest against the University plans. In speaking to The Gown Student Daniel Waldron and proposer of the motion to council said that “the current restructuring in Queen’s represents a further series of cutbacks in our education services”. He argued that “the private sector is not interested in providing students with a decent education focused on their needs.”

In November a motion, proposed by the SU President, was passed by Council stating “unanimous” opposition to the University plans of re-structuring and the movement of the Union into the Directorate of Commercial Services. Mr. Preston stated that the Executive Committee opposed the movement of the Union into the directorate “because of the divergence between the traditional ethos of student unionism and the assumed ethos of the proposed Directorate of Commercial Services.” The Executive proposed that they be moved into a Directorate other than Commercial Services. It appears though that the Executive has so far not been successful in achieving this objective in negotiations, however they have succeeded in retaining the Union as a single entity.

At the November meeting a 'working group' was also established “to represent the Students’ Union to the University on the specific issue of Academic Support Restructuring.” Mr. Waldron and colleagues came under fire from fellow Councilors in proposing their motion, in December, due to the moves made at the previous meeting in opposing the plans. In questioning Daniel on this he said that he “supported the setting up of the working group", but has "little confidence" that Student Council or Union Executive Committee "are capable of or having the correct approach to running a successful campaign.”

Kerb Crawling Crackdown

The practice of kerb crawling should be made an offence according to residents, police and politicians in South Belfast. A public meeting in Belfast City Hall was told that many women from Eastern Europe, Africa and Britain are working as prostitutes on the streets of Belfast.

The development of luxurious new apartment blocks in the city centre has brought the matter to a head. Residents complain that they are being mistaken for potential customers or clients and have called for the legislation to be extended. South Belfast MLA, Esmond Birnie said, “The law should be changed to bring it into line with England to make kerb crawling an offence.”

Detective Inspector Jeff Smyth also told the City Hall meeting that there are around 50 brothels in south Belfast, he admitted that as one is shut down, another opens. Many believe that forcing the problem off the streets will only force it underground, leading to a further increase in the number of brothels.

Within England and Wales prostitutes can legally work alone in flats or houses, but new proposals will make it lawful for two prostitutes to work together along with a receptionist or maid. In what might be interpreted as a limited legalisation of brothels, Home Office Minister Fiona McTaggart claimed that it was safer for these women to work together off the street and suggested it would cause little disruption to the local area. “Very small scale operations can operate in a way that is not disruptive to neighbours” she said.

-Should brothels be legalised?
-Is it better to control the problem than ban it completely?

Friday, January 13, 2006

Honorary Degree? Haven't you got yours?

Mickey Harte, Chris Patten, Sir Digby Jones and Eamonn Holmes will be awarded degrees in the summer graduation ceremony this year. Mickey Harte led Tyrone to two All-Ireland Championships in three years and will receive a degree for services to Gaelic Football. Chris Patten, the architect of the PSNI, Sir Digby Jones, CBI Director General and broadcaster Eamonn Holmes will all be awarded honorary doctorates.

Awarding such a title to Mr Patten, for distinction in public service will be interpreted by some as a political statement. Mr Pattens policing reforms were controversial and conferring an honorary doctorate indicates some level of approval. Honorary titles are normally not conferred on politicians, but the university has done so in the past, recognising other prominent figures in the peace process such as John Hume and David Trimble.

The University has steadily increased the amount of honorary qualifications it awards, arguably devaluing their significance. Others who will be honoured include, environmentalist Johnathon Porritt, Irish soprano Angela Feeney and belfast born Nicky Kinnaird, founder of Space NK beauty products.

Fundraising and investment remains high on the Universities list of priorities. This is demonstrated by honouring US businessman David Figgins, who sits on the International Advisory Board of Invest Northern Ireland.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Students' talk of withdrawal...

Queen's Students' Union Executive talks of withdrawal from the NUS-USI - - The student movement in Northern Ireland.

What do you think? Do you even know what its function is? Does it have any impact on your life (as a student)?

The Students' Union (as along with other Unions) pay a fee to the body every year of £50,000. With this fee the Union receives membership. Critics argue that the body isn't doing enough for the benefit of the students and viewed by many as a 'talking shop'. 'The Gown' understands that the organsiation is also in some financial difficulty.

The argument for withdrawal (or disaffiliation) is that it would save the Queen's Student body £50,000 a year allowing the money to be re-invested back into the Union. In it's place, it is suggested that a less 'bureaucratic' organsiational structure should be put in place with more emphasis placed on cooperation between the two Universities in Northern Ireland (UU and QUB) whilst regular meetings and cooperation continuing between those Unions in GB and the R.O.I. This would happen with a less of a financial burden.

However 'drink' could stop this, as with membership Student Union bars receive cheaper drinks deals as the Unions work together and buy in bulk spreading savings. Some would also argue that disaffiliation would also hamper the student movement in Northern Ireland.

What are your thoughts?

Some useful websites: